Pew Research Center
Released: June 4, 2012
Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years
Trends in American Values: 1987-2012
As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides.
Overall, there has been much more stability than change across the 48 political values measures that the Pew Research Center has tracked since 1987. But the average partisan gap has nearly doubled over this 25-year period – from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 percentage points in the new study.
Nearly all of the increases have occurred during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. During this period, both parties’ bases have often been critical of their parties for not standing up for their traditional positions. Currently, 71% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats say their parties have not done a good job in this regard.
With regard to the broad spectrum of values, basic demographic divisions – along lines such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion and class – are no wider than they have ever been. Men and women, whites, blacks and Hispanics, the highly religious and the less religious, and those with more and less education differ in many respects. However, these differences have not grown in recent years, and for the most part pale in comparison to the overwhelming partisan divide we see today.
In recent years, both parties have become smaller and more ideologically homogeneous. Republicans are dominated by self-described conservatives, while a smaller but growing number of Democrats call themselves liberals. Among Republicans, conservatives continue to outnumber moderates by about two-to-one. And there are now as many liberal Democrats as moderate Democrats.
But the growing partisan divide over political values is not simply the result of the declining number who identify with the party labels. While many Americans have given up their party identification over the past 25 years and now call themselves independents, the polarization extends also to independents, most of whom lean toward a political party. Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012.
Looking ahead to the 2012 election, the largest divides between committed supporters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are over the scope and role of government in the economic realm. Swing voters, who make up about a quarter of all registered voters, are cross-pressured. Their attitudes on the social safety net and immigration are somewhat closer to those of Romney supporters, while they tilt closer to Obama supporters in opinions about labor unions and some social issues.
In contrast to the widening partisan gap, the new survey finds neither growing class differences in fundamental political values, nor increasing class resentment. As in the past, a substantial majority of Americans agree that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” Yet there are no indications of increasing hostility toward the rich and successful. And there are no signs that lower-income people have become more cynical about an individual’s power to control their destiny or the value of hard work.
At the same time, the proportion of Americans who see a widening gap in living standards between the poor and middle class has grown since the mid-1980s. But the public sees no greater gap in values differences between the middle class and poor over this period.
The polling finds little support for the broad notion of American “declinism.” As has been the case in previous political values surveys, a large majority agrees that “as Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.” The public’s confidence in the nation has not been dulled, even as Americans have become more skeptical about prospects for economic growth.
These are among the principal findings of the latest Pew Research Center American Values survey, conducted April 4-15, 2012, among 3,008 adults nationwide. The values project, which began in 1987 and has been updated 14 times since then, tracks a wide range of the public’s fundamental beliefs. These questions do not measure opinions about specific policy or political questions, but rather the underlying values that ultimately shape those opinions.
American Values Interactive Database
To mark the 25th anniversary of the study, we have developed an interactive database of the full history of the Center’s values studies. This tool allows you to go beyond the surface to study change and stability within political and demographic subgroups. Explore the database.
Widening Gaps over Social Safety Net, Environmentalism
The survey covers the public’s attitudes on the role and performance of government, the environment, business, labor, equal opportunity, national security and several other dimensions.
Republicans are most distinguished by their increasingly minimalist views about the role of government and lack of support for environmentalism. Democrats have become more socially liberal and secular. Republicans and Democrats are most similar in their level of political engagement.
On some sets of issues, such as views of the social safety net, there already were sizable partisan gaps in Pew Research’s first political values study in 1987. But these differences have widened considerably. On others, such as measures of religiosity and social conservatism, there were only modest differences initially, but these divides also have grown.
Republicans and Democrats are furthest apart in their opinions about the social safety net. There are partisan differences of 35 points or more in opinions about the government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.
On all three measures, the percentage of Republicans asserting a government responsibility to aid the poor has fallen in recent years to 25-year lows.
Just 40% of Republicans agree that “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” down 18 points since 2007. In three surveys during the George W. Bush administration, no fewer than half of Republicans said the government had a responsibility to care for those unable to care for themselves. In 1987, during the Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62% expressed this view.
Over the past two decades, the public consensus in favor of tougher environmental restrictions has weakened, also primarily because of changing opinions among Republicans.
For the first time in a Pew Research Center political values survey, only about half of Republicans (47%) agree that “there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” This represents a decline of 17 points since 2009 and a fall of nearly 40 points, from 86%, since 1992.
The partisan gap over this measure was modest two decades ago. Today, roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans say stricter environmental laws and regulations are needed (93% vs. 47%).